World Turtle Day
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
by Amanda Gabryszak
Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), 2018
I was driving somewhere in the Hudson Valley when I noticed an Eastern box turtle crossing the road. I stopped the car, lifted it gently, and quickly glanced it over for any evidence of injury. Then, I carried it to the other side of the street in the direction it was heading. I set it down in the grass and watched to make sure it could walk okay. She ambled off, hopefully to lay eggs, and I got back into the car and carried on with my day. I didn’t think too much about it, and hopefully she didn’t either.
Turtle populations are vulnerable to a number of environmental impacts; helping them cross the street safely is just one way you can help them in their struggles. Box turtles, like the one pictured above, can lay up to 11 eggs at a time. If she had been run over, she, and those eggs might have been lost.
In a perfect world, that turtle lived, and her offspring thrived. I can’t know that for sure, but I hope she did.
It’s a much different story, though, if a turtle is hit by a car.
Much of the time, turtles you see crossing the road are on their way to find a nest site. It’s important to be compassionate and aware while you are driving, or even walking or biking down a road, and look out for them. If you decide to help a turtle cross, never lift it by the tail. When you move a turtle, first ensure that it hasn’t already been hit and that it isn’t clearly injured. Make sure you move the turtle the way in the direction it was heading, and wash your hands after. If you notice that the turtle is hurt, get in touch with your local wildlife rehab organization; they will be able to advise you in a way that suits your immediate situation. Use extreme caution in guiding a snapping turtle; they can turn their heads and bite. Lift from the back, and hold the turtle away from you, under the shell.
A broken turtle is difficult to fix; their shell is part of their anatomy. The carapace, or top portion of their shell, is made of bone - including its spine and ribs. In most species, the bony part of the carapace is covered in keratin scales known as ‘scutes’. The plastron, the bottom, is made of bone as well. The shell is not something a turtle can slip in and out of like on cartoons; it is part of their body. A break in the shell takes a minimum of two months to heal.
If you hit a turtle with a car and it lives, there is a chance the shell may be repaired. Even if the mother turtle dies, there is a chance her eggs may be salvaged and incubated; her babies may survive. Please do not attempt this at home; a wildlife rehabilitation license is required to care for native wildlife - even the eggs of native wildlife.
Left: Wire and tape securing a broken snapping turtle shell; Center: Radiograph showing eggs in a gravid female turtle; Right: Snapping turtle beginning to emerge from egg
Perceptions of turtles vary from person to person; for instance, it is not uncommon for people to fear snapping turtles, especially if they have one living in a pond on their property that children and pets may swim in.
Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are the largest turtles that inhabit freshwater in New York State, and were named the state reptile in 2006. They are omnivorous, and not aggressive towards humans unless they feel threatened. In order to avoid conflict, teach children what a snapping turtle looks like, why it’s important to not touch them, and supervise them.
Population health is a tricky subject; though Common snapping turtles are not listed as protected, one large mortality event could be enough to devastate their population. For instance, if the population is reduced by 60%, it will not quickly rebound. It may take decades to reach stability even at a low level! Researchers find one snapping turtle will need to lay 1400 eggs for one offspring to reach maturity; essentially, that means it will take one female snapping turtle 70 years to replace itself.
While they do provide ecosystem services, snapping turtles are cool on their own. They’re old; their family has crawled North American for around 90 million years. Think about that – they’ve seen some dinosaurs. They’ve endured massive geographic changes. You’d think they could endure us; but can they?
As the climate changes, turtles face a unique challenge: the sex of most turtle eggs is determined by temperature. The specifics vary by species; here, box turtles and snappers are fairly similar; box turtle eggs will be male between 70-80F, and female above 82F. One study found snapping turtles are male between 75F and 80F, and female at 84F. Since maturity occurs at around 7-15 years in snapping turtles, it would theoretically take decades of steady temperature increase to see a sort of cataclysmic decline. But shifting from 80F to 84F isn’t that unthinkable.
Most of the work being done focuses on sea turtles, which the IUCN lists as endangered, and are considered more immediately threatened. One researcher found that in 2018, baby female green turtles outnumbered male baby green turtles at a clip of 116:1. That’s a massive discrepancy, and one that over time, may apply to more and more turtle species. They will not be able to replace themselves.
If we lose our turtles, our ecosystems and our societies will be at a loss. Different cultures have revered, appreciated, or otherwise honored turtles for centuries with representation across the globe. That sort of cross-cultural human connection with turtles is something rare, and special. We should continue to nurture it, and do what we can to help them.
Much of reducing climate change impacts involves regulation and legislation. We can help this by writing legislators and paying attention and getting involved with organizations already working to protect wildlife. But the things we do as individuals matter, too.
It can be as easy as helping one turtle cross the road.